It’s been a fortunate holiday season for Maryland football.
On Dec. 15, festivities began with an eventful early signing period that included letters of intent from four of the top 10 players out of Maryland. The Terps continued to receive in the spirit of the holidays with a set of recalibrating December practices made possible by a coveted six-win 2021 campaign. Those six wins also punched Maryland’s ticket to New York for the most giving gift for a rebuilding program.
Virginia Tech will be facing the Terps in the Pinstripe Bowl — Maryland’s first bowl game since 2016. And they plan on taking advantage of every benefit that has come of their regular season campaign — and the tumultuous climb that preceded the 2021 season.
Head coach Mike Locksley has emphasized the significance of his team’s bowl hopes all season. It’s what he’s stressed as a major milestone for the progression of the struggling program that he inherited in 2019.
“The fact that we’re having an opportunity to play a meaningful game in December with a chance to have a winning season, to me, shows that progress is being made with our program,” Locksley said. “And as we continue to set the standard of becoming a yearly bowl eligible team that then allows our fan base to get even more excited.”
The extra game services every athlete on the roster. With the extra practices, the youth of the program got to showcase their ability, grow and make their case for improved roles in 2022 and the veterans got opportunities to further hone their skills and improve their conditioning for the professional level.
“These practices have been so beneficial for our team,” Locksley said. “You have the ability to develop our young players while also, as I talked about, going back and really hitting the basics with the veteran players.”
“Some of the younger guys [are] stepping up,” receiver Rakim Jarrett said. “The guys that weren’t really getting a chance … [are getting a chance] to show coaches they know what to do and that they can do it.”
The seniors get to potentially end the season with a win and close out their careers on a much needed high note. It’ll be a cherished feat considering many of the departing seniors have stayed with the program since the death of Jordan McNair, weathering staff turnover, unprecedented controversy and losing seasons.
“My joy comes from seeing the smile on those 25 seniors’ faces,” Locksley said. “We had some guys that have endured quite a bit during your time here, good and bad … to be able to give these guys an opportunity to extend their season, to experience New York during the holidays, to play in an iconic Yankee Stadium. I mean, this is why they choose to come to Maryland.”
Most importantly, everyone gets to compete for hardware and a winning record — both of which haven’t been on Maryland’s radar since 2016.
“We want to have fun and let them take on this bowl experience as much as possible,” Locksley said. “But the goal of it is to go up and find a way to win the game, not just be there.”
Virginia Tech, with the same 6-6 record and a similarly turbulent regular season journey that included a departing head coach, looks to regain its status as a winning program, a distinction it maintained for over 20 years before the Hokies most recent sub-.500 campaign in 2020.
For the Hokies, their winning hopes are dependent on their adaptability. Like several other teams in the nation, Virginia Tech is dealing with a flux of transfer portal entries, to go along with the coaching staff alterations, forcing it to field an offense that is a shell of the team that granted it bowl eligibility.
Aside from the 1-1 interim head coach, J.C. Price, who will be patrolling the sidelines in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Hokies will be playing without their leading rusher, passer and top three receivers. All have opted out of the bowl for the NFL Draft or transfer portal. The turnover leaves Virginia Tech with an offense that will be led by quarterback Connor Blumrick, who’s thrown just 16 passes for 42 yards, a fairly serviceable running back and a banged up receiving core.
Unlike Virginia Tech, the holidays have been kind to Maryland. News of returning stars Johari Branch and Dontay Demus Jr., new heralded receiver transfer Jacob Copeland and flipped star recruits have headlined December’s fun. But a bowl victory will likely be the highlight of the season and a springboard for the program.
“As coach Locksley says, this is the beginning of the next season,” defensive back Jakorian Bennett said. “We win this game and basically we’ll be starting great [in 2022]. So we just gonna use this game to jump start this off-season and get everything rolling.”